U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., at left, and State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha are running for the 2nd District seat in the Omaha-area. (Courtesy of Photos/House of Representatives and Unicameral Information Office)
OMAHA — U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., beat an incumbent Democrat in 2016. He survived a “blue wave” election in 2018. He outpolled former President Donald Trump locally in 2020. And he drew no top-tier GOP challenger in this year’s primary race, despite Trump seeking one.
Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, faces a more established opponent now than in either 2020 or 2018, when he beat nonprofit consultant Kara Eastman. His new foe is State Sen. Tony Vargas, a South Omaha Democrat with a legislative record.
Vargas, a former teacher and nonprofit employee, just finished a legislative session where he joined others in passing a $1 billion tax relief package, 43-0. The bill included income tax cuts, property tax offsets and faster tax cuts on Social Security income.
He worked with State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne to secure millions in federal coronavirus relief funds for North and South Omaha. Vargas has said his being on the Appropriations Committee helped make sure the money made it through the conservative body.
He has worked to draw attention in the Legislature to the plights of meatpackers and teachers.
“I am a 10-year elected official,” Vargas said. “I worked across the aisle. I’m a product of the American Dream. My parents came here with nothing. We fought for everything that we have. That’s why I’m running for Congress, because we can solve actual problems.”
Bacon has passed 14 bills in three terms in Congress. He’s proudest of working to pass $2.3 billion in funding to restore five military bases damaged by disasters, including flooding damage to Offutt Air Force Base and the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland. The legislation passed despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s opposition.
Bacon describes himself as a conservative with a record of bipartisan votes, including one that upset Trump: the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden sought. Bacon said Nebraska will receive billions in funding from the measure. Bacon voted with Trump about 89% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
“If you oppose everything your opposition does, you’re giving them power to put you in a box,” Bacon said. “You’ve got to do the right thing. Your compass cannot be doing the opposite of your adversary. It’s about … standing up for what’s good for America.”
Trump lashed out against Bacon after the infrastructure vote and during a political rally in the Nebraska governor’s race. Political observers have questioned whether Trump’s displeasure with Bacon risks depressing Republican turnout in a GOP-leaning congressional district that is pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
But Geoff Lorenz, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist, said Trump’s criticism might help Bacon in a swing district where Biden beat Trump by 22,091 votes and Bacon beat Eastman by 15,365 votes in 2020. Polling here indicates Trump’s support lagging.
A Trump endorsement does boost turnout, Lorenz said. But Bacon is running at a good time for Republicans nationally, Lorenz said: In an off-year election when Democrats hold the White House and Congress, the GOP expects to win seats and retake the House.
“We should expect Democrats to lose a lot of competitive House races,” Lorenz said. “It is way too early (in this cycle) for polling, but first midterms are really bad for first-term presidents. History assumes a wave against the sitting president’s party in the House.”
Outside factors could motivate more Democrats than usual to the polls, political observers said, including a possible Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and mass shootings that could spur congressional action on mental health and guns.
Those issues also could motivate Republicans, including people who oppose abortion rights and gun restrictions, observers said. The key in a swing district like the 2nd District, Lorenz said, could be which party succeeds at painting the other candidate as extreme.
Vargas points to Bacon’s votes opposing additional funds for education and mental health and a Democratic-led bill aiming to reduce prescription drug costs as evidence Bacon isn’t as bipartisan as he says. Vargas supports a public option to purchase health insurance.
Bacon describes Vargas as a liberal. Vargas, he said, talks like a man of compromise and votes like Eastman. He points to Vargas’ pivotal vote early in the process that nearly killed the Legislature’s tax cut package and to his push for justice reforms that Bacon said risk public safety.
Abortion is a bright line between the two candidates. Vargas voted against Legislative Bill 933, a “trigger” bill that would have banned abortion in Nebraska if Roe v. Wade is overturned. He said voters tell him that “reproductive freedoms are under attack.”
Bacon is unapologetically anti-abortion. He said he prefers decisions about abortion law to be made at the state level. He also said he would support a federal ban, with exceptions for the life of the mother, although he questioned whether such a ban could pass Congress and survive a presidential veto.
After the school shooting that killed 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, Vargas said, he wants “common-sense” gun regulation. He supports expanded background checks and restoration of the former federal ban on assault weapons. He said he’s tired of a minority of gun owners running out the clock on reforms that have bipartisan support among Americans.
Bacon said he might support expanded background checks if Congress can negotiate reasonable exceptions and penalties. He criticized the recently passed House bill as being rushed and heavy-handed, saying parents couldn’t sell their adult child a gun without running a background check.
On immigration, Bacon said his supporters want to get the nation’s southern border under control. He, like many congressional Republicans, has emphasized the need to reinvest and re-engage the president on deterring or at least slowing the flow of migrants to the border.
“I favor increased legal immigration because we need it,” Bacon said. “If we didn’t have any immigration at all, our birth rate would be 1.8 (live births per thousand of population each year) and we would have a declining population, so we need legal immigration.”
Vargas has discussed the need to improve the processes to help people enter the country legally. He has argued there is a way to be humane and orderly along the border. He and Bacon agreed on the need for Congress to help young people who were brought to the country as children.
Inflation and more
Voters’ top concern is inflation, both candidates say. When Vargas and Bacon knock on doors, they’re hearing complaints about gas prices, food prices and more.
Vargas says the district needs real economic solutions that help struggling families, ranging from subsidies for child care costs and tax cuts that help the middle class. He also wants to make it easier for workers to join unions so wages can keep up with costs.
“People want a public servant that’s going to focus on the problems, not the party,” Vargas said. “We have to address inflation or make sure that wages can improve.”
Bacon blames Biden and Democrats for spending too much on the latest round of COVID relief. He says the GOP will slow that down. He would push for energy independence, he said, including more oil and gas drilling permits and pipelines. It’s wrong to blame only the war in Ukraine for the bulk of inflation, he said.
“One of the things we can do is just control our spending better,” Bacon said. “And we need to expand our energy supply so that we can lower the costs.”
Get ready for ads
Observers expect Nebraska’s 2nd District race to be another expensive one. Last time, Bacon and Eastman spent more than $8 million combined, and outside groups spent another $13 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks congressional campaign spending.
Thus far this cycle, Bacon has raised $2.3 million, much of it from political action committees and has more than $1 million in cash on hand. Vargas has raised $1.1 million, much of it from small donors, and has nearly $250,000 in cash on hand.
Vargas expressed confidence that he will raise what he needs. National Democrats recently added the race to their “Red to Blue” list, which signals to donors that Democrats think a race could be close.
A changed district
The 2nd District is one of 79 competitive congressional districts nationally, Lorenz said. During redistricting last year, state senators moved most of Papillion and La Vista into the 1st District. Both are conservative strongholds in Sarpy County, which benefitted Bacon. Rural Saunders County was moved into the 2nd District.
Saunders County has voted about 75% Republican in recent congressional races. Bacon said he has visited Saunders 27 times since the district’s boundaries changed. His team is helping organize young GOP clubs in Saunders County high schools and is getting involved with the county GOP. Vargas has visited Saunders County several times, too.
Lorenz says voters should listen to what the candidates pledge. Research shows that successful candidates typically try to do what they promised they would while running, he said.
“What I’ll be looking at in this race are, what are the problems they’re highlighting that both candidates think that their districts care about, that voters will care about and (that voters might) reward them for doing something about,” he said.
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